The Library Showdown Smackdown: Abram versus Buschman

Ok. So in the past few weeks I’ve seen two of the leading voices in librarianship speak, both Stephen Abram and John Buschman. Both are fascinating speakers, charismatic individuals and, without doubt, brilliant individuals. However, I couldn’t help but notice some fundamental differences between the things they were saying. I’ve been thinking this through for a while and thought it might help to try to get some of these thoughts down on paper. So be warned. These ideas are extremely half baked and maybe should have stayed in the oven for a while longer. But what are blogs for? So here we go.


At the very beginning of his lecture Abram stated flat out that being a Librarian is no longer about books. That you should not be in this program if you want to work with books. When it comes to things like recommending and helping individuals find books. “Chapters does it better.” Gasp! I looked back at the audience when he said that and saw a lot of these faces:


“The Book” still has a place of prominence at Western Library School. We are a program of History and English graduates Who speak in fond terms of the smell of a book and the feel of an old Book Store. We engage in a kind of snobbishness, fetishization, and nostalgia when it comes to the whole e-books versus physical book debate. “E-books just don’t produce the same experience” “They can’t match the feel of a book” “You can’t cuddle up and read an E-book like you do an actual book” Etcetera.

No pitchforks came out on Saturday though. He won us all back talking about the profound importance of the Librarian’s job and how we were extremely undervalued. Librarians, he argued, can do anything (I’m paraphrasing there, but that was the gist of it). He talked about his career as working as a librarian, which went from such impressive things like changing a school systems start time – so the kids could be more rested and pay more attention in class – to even more impressive things like changing the Constitution (!) to more inclusive of people with diverse sex and gender identities.

Impressive no? We all thought so. This was the main point of his presentation. That Librarians are no longer tied to the idea of libraries as places to find books. Libraries should be centers of learning. He gave the example of how libraries should have filmmaking resources for local filmmakers and how they should also work closer with the local school system. A lot of his lecture was focused on how ‘Change’ was a good thing.


A couple of his slides


He probably wouldn’t enjoy this analogy (and a lot of you probably won’t either) but what he wanted from Libraries was to be like Google. For Libraries to be involved and taking part in every form of learning that happened within a community. For Libraries to focus on public relations, marketing, and research. Libraries need to know their user’s needs and wants before they do and be there to provide them.

Yah. I know…. Libraries need to be like Google….. without the profit driven motive that Google has. That’s what he was saying. They also need to be more local and community driven rather than international. This is perhaps where we get a leg up on Google.


Just one more thing about Abram and then we will get to Buschman. I promise. Abram was also very positive on the idea of libraries partnering and working with private companies. That libraries are not an island of information but need to network with other non-profit and profit based companies. That partnerships are the way of the future for libraries (more on this later)

Now where would Buschman stand in regards to all of this? I think ultimately he would agree with a lot of the ends that Abram had in mind. The idea of libraries moving past the book and becoming more involved in the community. However Buschman would do some serious slight head-shaking and mouth-tightening (His facial response when he disagrees has a kind of Christopher Hitchenest look) at means proposed by Abrams to getting to these ends.

Buschman is of the old left politically (New left? Neo-left? Post-left? Sigh. Whatever the label for “not a Marxist but isn’t offended being called one” is these days). And so has some very nostalgic ideas about the libraries place as being part of the public sphere and working closely with lower classes and unions. He thinks neo-liberalism is bringing about the death of the public sphere and replacing values with profit. That companies like Google are destroying public live and making everything corporate and greedy.

[We were talking about Google with Buschman and (to attempt to quote him from memory) he said this interesting quote about google: “the thing about Google is that once you realize just how far and how ingrained they are, you realize it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s like a one-two punch. You realize the problem and then right after you realize there is no solution”]


Buschman believes that things are seriously changing for the worse when it comes to community engagement, class warfare, and public libraries. That all this marketing, PR, and relentless entrepreneurship will continue to expand the digital divide. Libraries and Librarians then have duty to fight against these trends and continue to give the left and the public sphere a voice.

Abram, on the other hand, believes libraries should jump to the front of this trend. That we should be leading the charge of this wide and diverse change.

Now hold up here. If you had to put Abram and Buschman in the same room, you would discover that they have very similar value systems. Both think libraries should be more engaged in the community, both think freedom of information should be the most important value of any library, and both think librarians’ talents and skills are severely underutilized.

Is the difference then solely a political one? That one has embraced capitalism and the other fights against it? But they both want such similar things…. It’s just the methods they would go to get them is different. Abram wants libraries to copy and work with private companies, while Buschman thinks we should look more toward public institutions for guidance and fight off the private sector.

Now Abrams articulated something very interesting in his talk about the private and public divide. He stated how they both have very messed up views of each other (See my blog post about the public/private divide in library school). That, particularly, the private sphere isn’t driven by profit. Yep. He mentioned how when he worked the private sphere when they talked about producing and selling a new product, they never focused on how much money it would make, but rather how much influence it would have. Profit is just a means to an end for private companies. And you can call the “end” influence or status, but what it really is is power.

Power also drives the public sphere, they just have very different ideas on how to get to it. Instead of using profit as a means there is more of a focus on community engagement, democracy and engagement. But, of course, this private/public divide is waayyy too simple of a binary. It’s more complex. Sometimes public institutions are driven by profit and sometimes private companies are driven by engagement. The public sphere and private economy are a lot more entangled then we think.


Whoa. So getting a bit to theoretical and off topic there. I just think this public/private divide is exactly what the Buschman/Abrams divide is. Which means they are both more complex and intertwined then we give them credit for.

So that’s a pretty lame conclusion right? Who wins the debate between Buschman and Abrams? “Well…they both kinda win…it’s complex…” Ouch. Sorry. But it’s true. I think maybe putting them against each other is a mistake in the first place.

BUT the thing is I really feel like Buschman and Abram would have a “Rumble in the Jungle” if put in the same room. They make up two political trends of librarianship that are very evident in our profession. I feel you could very easily have a whole 9001 class debating between their points of view and which one is right about librarianship. It would be interesting to do a survey of our program and see who took what side. I feel like it would be evenly split.

There. I took the Buschman and Abram dispute and used it as a metaphor for Librarianship as a whole. That’s a much better conclusion. I’ll end there.


About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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1 Response to The Library Showdown Smackdown: Abram versus Buschman

  1. Pingback: The Fetishization of the Library | Mastering MLIS

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